The 737-800 was doing a fair impersonation of an airborne sardine tin as it winged its way over the German hinterland. Low-cost air travel is a boon. It allows people across Europe to mix, exchange ideas and hopefully understand one another. Modern aircraft fly above the weather giving a smooth and reliable service although cramped. I was on one of my ‘keep-it-cheap’ trips. Airport taxes only on the flight out and less than £15.00 for the return leg. The hotel was just over £100.00 for seven days, cheap yes, cheerful I will have to see. I was making the journey in January. This is unusual for me as I tend to be sedentary in the winter months only surfacing with the warmer weather.
My destination was Kraków. Poland’s southerly second city. Serviced by Balice Airport which surprisingly handles only half the passengers as Bristol Airport. I didn't linger in the terminal and soon found a taxi. The temperature outside was -17’C and my legs became aware of it before the rest of my body. It was as if they were in a different time zone. A chill gripped them in an icy embrace and I fleetingly imagined they might become brittle and snap like sticks of frozen asparagus. I thought lovingly of the ‘long Johns’ in my luggage and gratefully settled myself in the nearest taxi.
My hotel was in the Ulica Malborska, to the south east of central kraków. A singular establishment with the most interesting plumbing I have ever come across and only one bottle of wine in the bar. I was soon in trouble with the language. I speak Spanish a bit of Italian and of course English. A lot of words share a common Latin base but Polish is alien in spelling pronunciation, and construction. They appear to abhor vowels and for some linguistic reason start from the back-end of the alphabet. Deciphering food and drink containers was a nightmare. I am certain I drank a bottle of window cleaner thinking it to be flavoured milk. I suffered no ill effects and my vision is crystal clear.
Polish food isn’t the revered and lovingly prepared repast that is enjoyed in Mediterranean countries. It serves two purposes, to increase body temperature and provide sufficient calories until the next intake. To that end it is served extremely hot and usually fried. I suffered as I dislike fried food. I found that the sautéed menu options were more agreeable than the other offerings. However, I ate heartily as tomorrow was going to be a long and difficult day.
The morning was cold. Snow lay thick and a fresh fall was under-way. Properly insulated against the weather and having checked my camera equipment I awaited the taxi I had ordered the previous evening. Today was the main reason for my visit. I was visiting the concentration camps some 60 kilometres to the west of kraków. Renamed by the Nazi regime as Auschwitz and encompassing the camps at O?wi?cim (Auschwitz I) and Birkenau (Auschwitz II). It was the latter that the majority of the crimes were carried out.
Auschwitz I houses exhibitions in the barrack blocks which trace the history of the camps and the inmates. Entrance is free and although there is a recommended route it is not obligatory. The Auschtwitz – Birkenau State Museum who maintain the sites welcome all who visit. Reverence for those who perished there is an obligation for all who visit.
For respect to those who were imprisoned and died at Birkenau there are no exhibitions just the buildings, railway line and the partially demolished gas chambers where the unimaginable horror took place. The camps are much as the Russian liberating forces found it in January 1945. The occasional flower or candle left by a relative for someone lost but still remembered through the fog of time.
Looking out of the taxi window as it sped back to the hotel I thought about my visit to the camps. It was a place of fundamental evil. Although my Father, Mother and Uncles fought against the vile Nazi regime, I still felt guilty. Guilt because of the crimes committed there perhaps. Is this why they are called crimes against humanity, because we all share the guilt. The innocent included. It was going to take time to come to terms with it all.
At the hotel in the evening I sampled their one and only bottle of wine, Gato Negro a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. I soon polished it off leaving the establishment a wine free zone.
I had been invited to visit the salt mine at Wieliczka about 10 Kilometres east of my hotel. Its dimensions are staggering, 327 metres deep with over 300km of traverses, galleries and tunnels linking over 3,000 chambers. Obviously only a small portion of these are open to the public. It is still a good 2km walk to cover the whole tourist route. The operators Kopalnia Soli Wieliczka supplied me with a guide one Dorota, a charming lady with excellent English and Croatian. We descended using the Dani?owicz Shaft in a lift which accelerated like an amusement park white-knuckle ride.
Of the 22 chambers open to the public the largest is the Warsaw Chamber. A conference centre and function room which amongst other events hosts a New Year Eve party. The logistics of getting several hundred intoxicated revellers the 123 metres to the surface must have required very careful planning. A brace of champion sheep dogs would also be a useful backup.
For those worse for wear the Weimar Chamber boasts a small lake and sanatorium. It is benificial for those suffering from respiratory aliments due to its micro climate rich in sodium, calcium and magnesium chloride.
And for those who seriously overindulged there are three subterranean chapels on the tourist route, but far the largest is St. Kinga’s used for weddings, christenings and all the usual religious observances all at 102 metres below ground level.
As always my stomach beckoned. The thought of sitting down to lunch 135 metres below ground level appealed to my tiny mind. I took advantage of the online service to preorder a meal. It was served in the Witold Budruk Chamber and surprised me on two counts. Firstly, it was a full dinner, I thought I had ordered a snack but battling manfully I saw off all four courses. Secondly, it was superb redeeming Polish cuisine in my eyes. I entered the lift to leave the mine a few kilos heavier than I arrived.
On my last full day in the country I walked the five kilometres to the Stare Miasto or old town of kraków. I took a stroll around Wawel Hill this is where the old Royal Palace and Wawel Cathedral are located. There are many museums and important art collections housed within the buildings on Wawel Hill. The Cathedral is an especially important monument being the scene of many historic events. Within its fabric are buried some of the most revered and eminent citizens. Due to neglect and fire, the buildings have been rebuilt over the years and display a miss-match of styles ranging from Romanesque Gothic to Baroque. The hill offers some wonderful views over the city and its River the Vistula.
I set off in the Rynek Glówny or grand square where I knew there would be restaurants. My stomach was once more being in control. My logic proved correct and establishments offering all sorts of recognisable cuisine presented themselves. Greek, Italian and Mediterranean, they were all there. I chose one belonging to a Polish Chain a Sphinx Restaurant and settled down for a light lunch. The food surprised me here as well. Geared for the western European tourists, it was excellent and well presented. After sating my hunger and thirst I mooched through the stalls, listened to the street musicians and bought some momentoes.
At the airport the next day I sifted through my first experience of Poland. My initial dislike of the mainly fried food, then its redemption by the excellent Wieliczka Mine lunch. The huge salt caverns and saline lakes 130 metres below ground level. The most pungent memory was of course Auschwitz. We all know that Auschwitz happened but to be there and confronted with its reality is staggering.
Before I went to my boarding gate, I thought I would have once last attempt at the language. So to that end I flicked through my phrase book checking wording and syntax alike. Equipped with this new linguistic gem I approached a food kiosk. I tried to order a cheese salad sandwich and an iced tea. The counter assistance stepped back in alarm. She looked at me as if I were on fire, so I just pointed.